The Yes Men "prank-stars" tackle climate change, Homeland Security, international gay rights — and their own partnership

Salon talks to the activist-prankster duo about political disruption, hoaxes and achieving work-life balance

Published June 12, 2015 10:55PM (EDT)

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno in "The Yes Men are Revolting"     (The Orchard)
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno in "The Yes Men are Revolting" (The Orchard)

The Yes Men—Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, also known as Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin—have been activists/pranksters, or rather, make that “prank-stars,” conducting hoaxes against corporate greed for the past 15 years. Their third film, which they co-directed with Laura Nix, “The Yes Men are Revolting” is now out in theaters and playing film festivals, including Frameline in San Francisco and AFI Docs in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

The new documentary chronicles the pair’s efforts to help raise awareness of the dangers of climate change, Arctic melting and renewable energies. Their “actions” which are clever, funny and pointed, target corporate and government doubletalk. They include Andy pretending to be a spokesman at a Chamber of Commerce event or a Homeland Security conference. One stunt involves a giant polar bear. The environmental concerns are clearly presented in animated sequences that illustrate the huge consequences that will result if the issues at stake are ignored. In addition, social justice concerns are addressed when the pair go to Uganda, and Andy is prompted to discuss being gay in country where that is a punishable offense.

“The Yes Men are Revolting” explores the personal side of Mike and Andy. Mike is having his third child (unbeknownst to Andy), and Andy is hoping to settle down with a boyfriend, though his “work” keeps getting in the way. How the men navigate their work and lives and being “Yes Men” is what makes this documentary so compelling.

Shrewdly, the film shows the impact of protest, with scenes chronicling the inspiring Occupy efforts and the importance of activism, even when it sometimes fails. Salon probed Mike and Andy about creating hoaxes, fomenting cultural change and being the Yes Men.

You say in the film that you are perfect enablers for one another. How did you come to cause corporate trouble, and create the hoaxes you perpetrate?

Andy: It’s a very long story, but the way I got started was I was a programmer, and I inserted unauthorized gay content into the SimCopter video game. That was during the period of ACT UP, and when I did that, I hadn’t realized it as a political act. It was a lark. But when I got fired, I thought maybe there’s something here that’s interesting. I told reporters about it, and I had to make it make sense. It became gay activism, and I liked the process, and was hooked. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

Mike: I guess for me, it started in college around the same time Andy was doing his stuff. I was getting a sense of what fun it could be doing these political interventions. I organized guerilla theater in college—changing the names of local streets at night, or eating food-colored mashed potatoes and vomiting red, white and blue at a Republican fundraising dinner. There were these mischievous, fun actions I was getting involved with. The big breakthrough was the Barbie Liberation Action: switching the voice boxes so G.I. Joe would say, “I love to shop with you!” and Barbie would say, “Dead men tell no lies!” That got some media attention. Andy got some for the SimCopter hack, and mutual friends said we should get together.

This may sound like a naïve question, but what prompted you to put the focus on corporate greed and environmental issues, vs., say, Big Pharma?

Andy: Big Pharma was the actual target of the people I was inspired by—ACT UP. They were effective in targeting Big Pharma and forcing them to make more ethical choices.

Mike: Initially we were representing the World Trade Org, so it was natural to embody that entity, to show how we view the entire world. That imprinted on us to go after big issues. Post-9/11, we worked with campaigns that were going on and so we naturally found a lot of environmental justice projects. The environmental projects often overlapped with social justice, such as our 2004 Bhopal action, where there was a contamination issue on the site. It was also about green revolution in India, when big companies were introducing chemicals into agriculture. Climate change is exacerbating and putting pressure on everything, especially the poor. We found a way of criticizing the big-picture issues. We have that luxury because we are small and can do what we want, rather than having supporters who need to see incremental victories along the way. We’re not in that situation because we don’t have to please a constituency. We don’t have donors who will be upset if we don’t pass a law. That’s why we can focus on big-picture issues and learn more about the system we are part of and this fiscalized world that is really a machine built to destroy us.

Mike, I’m guessing you did your own stunts in the film? What was it like rolling down the steps in a “survivaball,” being the ass end of a polar bear, and questioning authority?

Mike: I’ve gotten to be good at pratfalls for some reason. I rolled down the steps of the Capitol a few times. I guess I’m a self-taught stuntman.

Andy, you tend to be very nervous, as when you are about to give a speech, or come out to Ugandans. What accounts for your anxiety? Does that feed into your activist nature?

Andy: [Laughs] I’m a kind of shy person, actually, and I do think the adrenaline and the challenge of it is something I enjoy. I enjoy taking risks and going on adventures. The nervousness adds an edge. If I were calm about it, I wouldn’t do it as well. I think it is also the dynamic with Mike. He isn’t nervous; he’s outgoing and gregarious, and I sometimes wish I were that way. He provides that kind of support, saying, “You can do this.” I provide other things. 

In the film, you both question your activism, and if you should devote more time to jobs and family. How do you find the balance between work and home and being Yes Men?

Mike: Sometimes it’s hard to find a balance. It helps that I have an academic job, which is excellent in terms of hours so I can fit in activism when I have breaks in the calendar. It continues to be a challenge because I have kids. The movement goes on without you. We didn’t realize that because we were so obsessed with making a difference. You feel if you drop the ball, everything is going to stop. But millions of people are working on the same issues. Once you acknowledge that you are part of a movement, you figure out how to sustain a commitment without compromising your mental health or the people around you.

Andy: Aah… For me, [actions were], for a long time, integral to my life, and took the place of a long-term relationship for a while. As it became imperative for me to have an LTR with a partner, it was important for me to pass these techniques, which were pioneered by ACT UP and the Yippies, along. It’s important to help others develop techniques around issues they care about. If that’s successful, I’ll have more free time to craft a relationship and other things. Giving people the tools to do this in film and media activism is useful.

You have as many hilarious actions in the film as you do inspiring ones. Are there any pranks you are particularly proud of?

Mike: Andy hates the word “pranks.” Kembrew McLeod, who copyrighted the phrase “freedom of expression,” wants to recover the word “prank” because he thinks it’s a political thing. We have political agency, so I don’t mind that word.

I’m proudest of the final action in this movie. It’s my favorite because of how it suggests a solution and how people embrace solutions. I think it’s getting at something that’s really hopeful.

Andy: The Shell action for me is the one I’m especially proud of because it was basically a brand new thing—we never really played with social media much outside of a Chevron action we did. You see only a tiny part of it in the movie, but we created a social media phenomenon. We had not used that technology before very much. It was the best kind of project because it was fresh and exciting and it worked. It was new to do, and not a repeat of something that was proven to work.

You obviously do considerable research to plan an action and prepare for things as best you can, but how do you handle things going pear-shaped?

Mike: Something unexpected always happens. The last action in this film is a good example. Some of the stuff that’s not in the film was from before the action even happened. While we were driving to D.C. from New York, the PR agency we were impersonating called us, so we thought the gig was up. But they hadn’t gotten back to the conference organizers. So we knew we were on track.

Andy: Everything we’ve done—happenstance has led to it. Even how we became the Yes Men.

Mike: Andy put up a fake site for the WTO before the Seattle protests in 1999. We thought it would get some attention and be funny, and so then, by surprise, people were emailing us thinking they were contacting the WTO. They either didn’t read or didn't understand the site, so we started attending conferences. We thought we’d be kicked out. We got there and they didn’t kick us out. We attended an International Trade Law conference in Salzburg and pretended to be the WTO. Andy was speaking, and he announced that we wanted to outlaw the siesta in Spain because it gets in the way of work, and he proposed a new system to sell votes to corporations to open a free-market democracy. People accepted it and embraced it and wanted to have lunch with us! We were in a state of shock. So we have had a series of unexpected actions.

What can you say about your actions when they don’t work out or are less effective than you might want them to be? Surely there is disappointment, and depression, but are you inspired to try better next time?

Andy: Of course, it’s constant—we sometimes fail because we have too many resources thrown at us and we have to use them. It becomes too elaborate and too produced, and it kind of freezes your brain. You are trying to figure out how to make the biggest effect. But successful actions feel at the time a bit like failures because we do this Chamber of Commerce action, and there’s huge press and everyone’s talking, but what changes? We were lucky that the Chamber of Commerce did reverse its position on the bill. That’s unusual. That’s not because of our action, but a bigger movement we were a part of. When an action doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve, that’s a reminder that it’s more that movements—like ACT UP or Gay Liberation—achieve things. Who would have foretold gay marriage would happen with all the setbacks, or that ACT UP would force pharmaceutical companies to come up with a treatment? These changes in our world were not based on one action, but cumulative actions. 

The wig, the suits, the Kulluk prop, the business cards, the Native American song, the “survivaballs”—how do you come up with all the props and concepts? And where are the Yes Men action figures?

Andy: [Laughs] They are on their way to a factory in China where they will be produced!... There’s a whole brainstorming process around these things. You think of the most absurd, funniest way you can to convey something serious. If someone offers you a life-size polar bear, you figure out a way to use it. A lot of it is impromptu. I got started with the [SimCopter] video game, which was right in front of me. I never planned it would have an effect. The same is true for most of our actions. We used whatever was in front of us to make the clearest and funniest possible statement of what we are talking about.

It’s so easy to inspire people to want to get involved. What can people do (short of seeing “The Yes Men are Revolting” and staging their own actions) to support your causes?

Andy: We’re actually starting an eight-week online course on July 20 on the Action Switchboard, which enables anyone to propose projects and find collaborators, not unlike a Kickstarter. Working with organizations started in 2004 with the Bhopal catastrophe. Before then, we focused on the WTO and policy-level questions. How policy was killing people and impeding justice. We’ve worked with organizations, so now we’ve created a course to craft and carry out actions. People were inspired or emailed us and wanted to do something around some issue, but there was no real way for us to help them. Until now.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Activism Documentary Film The Yes Men